Australia will play a diminishing role in the Asia-Pacific region if we cut back on scientific research and allow our record emigration of skilled workers to continue, argues Warren Reed.
In Sydney, on March 26, in his first foreign policy speech, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd claimed this country had a lot more to offer the international community. “Australia can be a greater force for good in the world,” he said. “The truth is that Australia’s voice has been too quiet for too long.”
Rudd outlined his commitment to “creative middle-power diplomacy” through cementing partnerships in the Asia-Pacific and with the United Nations. Noble words, many might say.
The sharpest commentators homed in on what middle-power status actually means, focusing on the need for such states to “maintain a high degree of defence self-reliance” if they were to wield sufficient strategic clout to influence political outcomes. For example, we have to display a capacity to respond to terrorist attacks, to the outbreak of diseases like bird flu, to humanitarian disasters and to failed states in our region.
Putting aside the fact that Australia’s traditional defence plan is fraught with capability shortfalls and endless cost blow-outs, the crucial dimension that no one thought to raise was how we defend ourselves on the intellectual-cum-ideas front. Perhaps as a middle-distance runner we can perform without a brain.
This reminded me of a day-long interview I was once privileged to do in Yokohama with Naohiro Amaya, Japan’s one-time vice-minister for trade and industry. In the early days of Japan’s post-war economic boom, he had served as consul-general in Sydney, after which he remained Australia’s best friend in the Tokyo system until he died of cancer in the late 1990s. He was an amiable and open-minded Japanese. At that time, I was writing a book for a Tokyo publisher — Australia and Japan: Grappling With a Changing Asian World — and sought his views on what Australia had to offer beyond resources.
“Your greatest contribution to this part of the world,” he said, “will long be your Western status and your custom of freethinking and expression. Much of Asia, and particularly Japan, is hidebound and obsessed with face. Too often that stymies the process of generating important ideas.”
He went on to outline Australia’s prime challenge in the region: to be an honest broker that could broach openly, though discreetly in Asian terms, bold and practical ideas.
“Remember,” he said, holding up his hand with his fingers spread, “every time your key people stride Asia’s corridors of power you should hit us with five top initiatives, one or more of which you must ensure is adopted. If you’re really clever you’ll sell the product of your thinking to us in ways that allow us to virtually embrace it as our own.”
The number “five” was a play on words. The Japanese and the Chinese use the same two-character compound for Australia, which loosely means “state of abundance”. In Japanese, it’s pronounced GoshuAuzhou. The sound go also means five in Japanese, though written with a different ideograph.
Amaya was right on the money then, and he still is now.
But how smart are we on the intellectual front and how likely to live up to his expectations?
Asian language studies in Australia, through which most of our appreciation of foreign thought patterns and values is derived, are languishing, and dangerously so.
Only two days after Kevin Rudd’s speech, The Australian ran pages of articles on the worthwhile New Agenda for Prosperity conference it was co-sponsoring with the Melbourne Institute. The front page of that same newspaper carried another article headlined “Razor gang eyes 25pc cut to CSIRO research”. Page two carried yet another: “Record emigration of skilled workers”.
If Australia is going to have any degree of sustainable intellectual self-reliance and be a powerhouse of ideas, which we can be if we work at it, we’re going to have to see through our own rhetoric.
Prime Minister Rudd said in his Sydney speech: “Foreign policy, foreign economic policy and national security policy must increasingly be seen as the natural expression and extension of the nation’s domestic policy interests. Not as some sort of policy exotica removed from the Australian mainstream, but as part and parcel of the interests of main-street Australia.”
Well said, but the challenge is to do it.
Hopefully, Mr Rudd will have picked up some ideas on his overseas trip. If not, the Australia 2020 Summit at Parliament House in Canberra on April 19-20 is going to have to get down and dirty — really dirty.
— Warren Reed is a former chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). He has spent much of his life studying, living and working in Asia.